Ebonics: Using AAVE to Teach Reading

Evidence shows that incorporating AAVE, alternately called Ebonics, into the classroom helps black children read faster.

What is Ebonics?

The term Ebonics was coined by Robert Williams, an African-American social psychologist, coined the term Ebonics in 1973. Ebonics means ‘black speech’ (the word ebony refers to ‘black’, and the word phonics refers to ‘sounds’). It descended from the language of enslaved Black Africans, particularly in West Africa, the Caribbean, and North America.

For educators, the term often refers to affirming black speech patterns in the classroom.

William Labov, linguistic professor, has studied and published extensively on black language patterns and their instructional implications. You can read his book, “Language in the Inner City Studies in the Black English Vernacular” to learn more.

a young blank mom leans over her black daughter and points at a screen helping her daughter learn to read

Evidence shows that incorporating AAVE, alternately called Ebonics, into the classroom helps black children read faster.

What is AAVE?

AAVE is the acronym for African American Vernacular English (AAVE). You may be familiar with its former label, often used by sociolinguists: Black English Vernacular or Vernacular Black English. Outside academics, you may be familiar with the name “Ebonics”.

Please read the article “The Ebonics Controversy in my backyard:
A sociolinguist’s experiences and reflections”
if you want to gain insight into the real-world adoption of Ebonics curriculums in the classroom. Both emotionally sensitive and intellectually rigorous, Professor Rockford, linguist, grapples with the practicalities of folding Ebonics into the education system under the eye of the media and competing politically motivated actors. 

“The Ebonics controversy in my backyard:
A sociolinguist’s experiences and reflections.”

Author: John R. Rickford, Department of Linguistics, Stanford University

If you don’t have time to read it, the main points that stand out in this essay are as follows:

Linguists are overwhelmingly in consensus that Ebonics is a systemic and rule-based language

“there is a greater consensus among linguists (especially vis-a-vis non-linguists) on this and other language policy issues than I would have imagined”

In 1997, the Linguistic Society of America [LSA] approved a resolution that  affirmed the “systematic and rule-governed and systematic nature of Ebonics 

Affirming Ebonics is used as a tool to fix acute educational disparities

School districts don’t turn to Ebonics because of linguistic interest but because of “the acute educational problems affecting African American students in their district, and the sense that taking the children’s vernacular into account might help to alleviate such problems.”

Evidence shows Ebonics works to help black children read faster

“The evidence of several studies that, with other factors held constant, a positive response to the vernacular by schools actually IMPROVED students’ performance in reading and writing. “

This evidence was of three kinds:

a. (1) Piestrup’s (1973) study in Oakland itself showed that teachers who constantly interrupted Ebonics-speaking children to correct them produced the lowest-scoring and most apathetic readers, while teachers who built artfully on the children’s language produced the highest-scoring and most enthusiastic readers;

b.(2) Evidence from the Bidialectal program in 5th and 6th grades in DeKalb County, Georgia, and at Aurora University outside Chicago that Contrastive Analysis similar to that employed in the SEP and in Oakland yields greater progress in reading and writing for Ebonics speakers than conventional methods;

c.(3) Evidence that teaching children to read first in their vernacular and then transitioning to the standard variety has led to better reading results, both among African American students (Simpkins and Simpkins 1981) and in Europe. These data are quite striking.

More research on Ebonics in the Classroom is needed

More research will help solidify this evidence and add more knowledge to the field.

Ebonics and Racism

Utilizing and affirming the value of ebonics in the classroom is controversial. It shouldn’t be. If racists did not tie black speech to poverty, then affirming a student’s native language to teach them reading skills and a second language pattern would not be controversial because it is consistent with other language acquisition theories.

Affirming the language that some black American children speak at home dovetails with many other language acquisition theories, such as Cummins Common Underlying Language Proficiency (CULP) theory, which states that a student’s first language is a boon to second language acquisition.

Black and white photo of Ruby Bridges at six years old
Ruby Bridges, six years old, in 1960, was the first black student to attend William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.

The history of the African American communities is one of strength, resilience, entrepreneurship, and activism; don’t forget, segregation was not that long ago! Ruby Bridges, the first student to desegregate schools in New Orleans, is still giving speaking tours.

Also, if you are hesitant on this issue, realize that constantly correcting a young child who is learning to read is counterproductive to teaching regardless of their first language. This is an issue of accuracy versus fluency; constantly correcting a student to improve accuracy creates an affective filter.

Language learning is additive. It is not a question of learning “standard English” or “black English.” Language acquisition is not a zero-sum game. Affirming and utilizing a student’s native language patterns while teaching more language patterns actually supports the student and fosters learning of the new language pattern: this is true for any language.

Bottom Line

Evidence shows that incorporating Ebonics into the classroom helps black children who use AAVE (ebonics) at home read faster. Always affirm student’s primary languages and use them when appropriate. This allows students learn other language patterns and read more confidently.

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Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL

Ingrid Maria Pimsner has been teaching for over a decade in various universities, nonprofits, and private academies. She has taught English as a Second Language for Lutheran Children & Family Service, Nationalities Service Center, Lernstudio Barbarossa Berlin-Tegel, and more. In addition to her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification, she holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA from Maryland Institute College of Art.